You're making good money, settled into a decent career and mortgage misery is a fading memory. But you and the family crave a place for the weekends. For months you've been secretly rotating Arcadian fantasies.
Your basic choice: cottage or house? Either represents a separate, sometimes mutually opposed mode of existence. What do they entail?
The classic entry-level second home is the cottage in Devon. After flogging up the motorway, car bulging with dogs, children, bikes and smuggled laptop, you arrive and fall apart in the fresh air feeling wonderful. So the roof leaks and things don't work, but in theory you like it that way - and the pub serves an excellent Sunday roast. Walking off lunch in the pouring rain, a thought flits across your mind: you could have bought bigger for less in France. But stop! You're English. This - England - is the deal.
Security isn't an issue until you've bought out the local antique markets.
If you've brought along your big city paranoia, you'll probably have the odd boundary dispute. But by then you'll have met the odd-job man who mows the lawn and keeps an eye on the place. People drop by. You meet other locals at church. Fungus-like, you'll put out spores into the community.
Or you might not. Some prefer to avoid country folk, thinking them stupid farmers with their mud and poisons ... and besides, you're a vegetarian.
A cottage works best when the children are young, your career is under control and on the move, and you can't focus on much else. Then the foundations of life begin to shift; you become a partner or director and suddenly the cottage shrinks to a pokey hut in the back of beyond. What seemed 'genteel poverty' is now 'restricted circumstances'. You couldn't possibly invite guests round. There aren't enough networking opportunities. And when the children prefer clubbing in Chelsea, the cottage becomes just a bore at the end of a two-hour traffic jam. Sell.
If, on the other hand, you have the temperament and organisational flair, then, subtly and invisibly, a new way of thinking steals up on you: 'We'll sell in London, pick up a pied a terre and buy that honey-coloured rectory with the clematis. I'll work four days a week and drive down on Thursdays.'
Accompanying this new mode of thought will be a switch to a more aggressive, fast-moving environment like Oxfordshire, Sussex or Gloucestershire, which now have sufficiently large waves of new money pouring in to keep prices rising (houses in Oxford have just broken pounds 2 million). The laid-back, get-away-from-it-all attitude is barged aside by fierce competitiveness.
As wife and children will be spending more time in the country, you'll need a second or third - and better - car. You'll want to keep up with the local cocktail party circuit and maybe even join the hunt. The full country 'package' looms, infinitely large and expensive. And the richer you seem, the more the locals will hate you.
Country life becomes a wonderful new playing field for the ambitious.
Having spent all week kicking arse in the City, you can spend the weekend doing the same in Gloucestershire. It's like the City, but green, with hills. Meanwhile the wife drives herself round the bend with dogs in the Volvo, while ingratiating herself with neighbours and doing good, but growing increasingly frustrated. Along the way, things fall into a familiar pattern: his affair in London, her affair in the country, and children packed off to boarding school. By creating challenges you wouldn't otherwise have had, second homes can precipitate a breakdown of family life. Or, if you're broadminded, it can cement it more solidly.
To make second homes work, you have to be organised or they easily become burdensome irritants that yield half the pleasure for twice the effort.
'Second homes are best when fully staffed,' says one banker. 'My ideal is a country-house hotel.'
If you don't care what the green-wellies next door think, here's a suggestion: it's a second home that skirts all the logistical problems, the security niggles, and the boundary disputes. It's dead cheap, too. You top up the Calor gas, wipe the mould off the shower curtain, clear out the dead mice, hook it up to the Skoda and you're off. So it's on wheels and called a caravan, but you won't find a cooler second home in Gloucestershire.